night’s Public Realm’s meeting promised to be a good one. On the Agenda
was the plan for Sidcup High Street and the proposals for revised parking
regulations and if that was not attraction enough it is chaired by the utterly
useless and occasionally obnoxious Cheryl Bacon. The evening did not start well.
As I descended the steps outside Sainsbury’s en-route to the Civic Centre I
bumped into the Bexley Action Group so we all piled into the Civic Centre
together enjoying pleasant conversation with the friendly doorman and then up
the stairs to the council chamber where our problems began.
As the hearing afflicted headed for the best seats their way was blocked by a jobsworth who claimed to be acting on the instructions of Kevin R. Fox. “Over there” he said, pointing at some more distant seats. Mick Barnbrook and Elwyn Bryant stood their ground and the jobsworth disappeared for a short while returning to say Kevin R. Fox had confirmed his instructions. I don’t usually involve myself in Fox’s petty minded nonsenses regarding them as manna from Heaven to a news reporting blogger; however this time was an exception. I said to the jobsworth “If you are going to play silly buggers so will I. Fetch me the reporter’s table to which I am legally entitled”.
A minute later the doorman arrived with a table and I had to whisper my apology to him. Only the day before I had told him that I wouldn’t be needing a table. I think he understood.
While perusing the Agenda just a couple of minutes before the meeting was due to begin I heard Nicholas Dowling’s voice. He was up the front speaking to chairman Cheryl and announced his intention to make an audio recording of the proceedings and was seeking permission in accordance with the June 2013 statement from the Department of Communities and Local Government. (See below, scroll as necessary.)
Cheryl said that council protocols prohibited it and Nicholas said he believed central government instructions took precedence over hers. As he returned to his seat clutching a silver coloured contraption the size of a matchbox the pompous ass otherwise known as Gareth Bacon called out “You’ll be ejected if you try”. By now it was precisely 19:30.
Cheryl began the meeting with the usual diatribe about no recording and Nick stood up and read out the Department for Communities guidance to members of the public which allows councils no obvious leeway. A quivering voice from the front announced the meeting was adjourned. It was 19:32.
Eight minutes later a shaking voice from the front repeated her outmoded warning. “If you continue causing a disturbance you will be ejected”. Nicholas asked “Why?”. My head was down busily scribbling at the time but I believe it was councillor Peter Reader who said something along the lines of “because it is not a public meeting” implying that that made Eric Pickles’ announcement irrelevant.
At 19:51 Nicholas stood up again and calmly reread Pickles’ statement. Councillors June Slaughter and Peter Reader both repeated the line that this was not a public meeting it was a scrutiny meeting. I expected better of Mrs. Slaughter, until that point all the more sensible councillors had stayed silent.
Three minutes went by before a squeaky voice very hesitantly announced that “as the disruption has not stopped the meeting is formally adjourned until 20:15”. The police were called and all but one of the councillors left the room some glad of the opportunity to “go outside for a fag”.
News reached us that the police had indicated they had better things to do and it might be anything up to an hour before we saw them and at 20:15 on the dot Cheryl and her cronies trooped back in. Cheryl, by now almost unable to speak, restated her position and that the Public Realm meeting is “an executive meeting held in public”. Not apparently a public meeting. She appeared to concede that recording will be allowed at public meetings, it’s just that Bexley council doesn’t hold any. Nick continued to clutch his little silver gadget so at 20:18 she announced the meeting was to be “held in closed session” and the Pied Piper led her rats out again.
A member of the public, well Mick Barnbrook actually, who was as surprised by the turn of events as I was - Nick had not announced his intentions to his friends beforehand - twice asked Cheryl Bacon under which protocol or standing order she was depriving him of his right to see the presentation and hear the debate on the plans for Sidcup High Street. She ignored him the first time and said she was “too busy” the second. Somewhere in the back of my mind I seem to recall reading that a council must give notice of holding a public meeting in closed session. No doubt time will tell.
So the remaining members of the public and the Action Group sat there waiting to see what would happen next.
At 20:26 two jovial Bobbies showed up, constables Little and Large. I jest, but one did have about ten inches over the other. Mick Barnbrook began to explain the situation to them but they said they were regular Bonkers readers and led us to believe they already knew exactly what Bexley council was like. After a short but pleasant conversation of a type that Cheryl Bacon probably wasn’t expecting, they asked us what we planned to do next, to which the answer was “go home”. So we did, collecting a half of beer each on the way. Well not Nick, he only drinks orange juice and lemonade.
Having made this hasty formal report of yesterday’s non-meeting, some less formal comment will follow after breakfast.